Symbols, Society and the Individual

Symbols, Society and the Individual

Hester Prynne vs. the Puritan Community

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter seems to be created around Hawthorne's obsession with the forbidding quality of the scarlet "A", the symbol from which the novel takes its title. Rrom the rose-bush which Hawthorne selects a flower from as an offering to the reader(1) to the "elfish" child Pearl, every aspect of the story is drenched in this letter's scarlet hue. Perhaps this repetition reflects Hawthorne's own repressed desires, as some critics suggest(2). However, what seems more compelling is the function which the symbol serves for Hester Prynne and the community which has condemned her. For Hester the symbol is clearly a literary one; she fashions the scarlet "A" to fulfill the function of telling, in one solid image, her story of sorrow and strength. For the Puritan community the symbol does not lead to truth, but rather conceals it. They place their fears and darkest imaginings into this brand. Hawthorne's possible artistic obsession brings to life a tortured woman, and the torment of the society that inflicts her punishment.

Freudian symbolism must be differentiated from literary symbolism in order to form a deeper understanding of the symbolic scarlet "A" conceived as a punishment by a Puritan society's desire to uphold its truths, but brought into physical existence by Hester Prynne's "fancy."(3) Daniel Weiss embarks on the enterprise of solidifying this distinction in the first chapter of his book titled The Critic Agonistes: Psychology, Myth, and the Art of Fiction.(4). Weiss suggests that "the literary symbol is a concrete and untranslatable presentation of an idea, or an experience that cannot find its way into consciousness except through the mediation of the symbol."(5) The weight of this definition lies in its assertion that the symbol is a "concrete" representation of an "abstract" idea, that is, the symbol transcends the intangible idea by presenting the idea in a palpable form. Whereas the symbols that Freud describes as appearing in dreams, or dream-like states, rise not from a balanced blending of "abstract" and "concrete," but from an unsuccessful and ill- proportioned attempt to confront and represent the "repressed." Thus Freud conveys an explanation of the symbolic expressions of emotion or sensation which thrive on the deeper abstraction of truth, rather then the clarification of it: "In Freudian symbolism the symbol evolves from the resistance to the truth of the unconscious. Rather than a unique appropriateness the symbol expresses what one may call a unique oppositeness to the unconscious idea."(6) Here, for elucidation of this distinction, Weiss points to the story of Oedipus, one of Freud's favorites: "Jocasta represents the passive, feminine spirit of conservation--repression, begging Oedipus for God's sake not to seek the truth."(7) Jocasta's desire for the continued repression of the truth displays the fear of the uncertainty which comes from unleashing a menacing truth. Thus the power of the Freudian symbol finds root in its "concealment" of a threatening or "forbidden" truth. With these distinctions between literary and Freudian symbols in mind the task can be taken in hand of determining which sort of symbol the Puritan community's and Hester's scarlet "A" is.

The spectators in "Prison Lane" the day of Hester Prynne's first hours standing on the pillory take place, are described as maintaining a "solemnity of demeanor."(8) Hawthorne depicts the present of the novel as a time in history when "religion and law were almost identical... both were so thoroughly infused."(9) The citizens of mid- seventeenth century Salem wait to witness Hester Prynne's retribution for the unlawful and irreligious act of adultery. Thus what Weiss might label Hester Prynne's "private urge"(10) becomes public knowledge, and the public, unable to "overcome" ingrained societal standards, feels obligated to condition Hester Prynne's "private urge[s]" to suit their public needs. The Sibidalem community does this by making an icon of Hester Prynne. One might say that Hester Prynne becomes the scarlet "A" and the "A" becomes Hester Prynne; she "giv[es] up her individuality, she[...] become[s] the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman's frailty and sinful passion."(11) For the Puritan community Hester Prynne and her scarlet brand become a Freudian symbol. She fulfills for them a social and, more importantly, a religious function. Her purpose as a symbol for the community might be described by Weiss like this:

The world's great symbols, as they emerge in religious icons--symbols of rebirth, rejuvenation, resurrection--are seen as memorials to the anxieties that attend our biological rhythms. The anxiety is mastered by being displaced to a universal religious, scientific, philosophical, or...a meaningful aesthetic experience. The anxiety is mastered by dint of repetitions, by the substitution of controlled rituals, and by condensation into unified and benign experience.(12)
The first day which Hester spends standing on the pillory with her tokens of shame, her infant girl and her scarlet "A," create a ritualistic scene and bring the community together to witness the upholding, or the maintenance, of what they believe crucial to their society's stability, the suppression of "evil" and the repression of "anxieties" caused by deviations from the public normality's. Richard Brodhead, in his text Hawthorne, Melville and the Novel states this idea of communal "pageantry," which appears as the opening act of the novel, in similar terms:
By choosing the punishment of Hester as his first scene Hawthorne is able to reveal the Puritan community in what seems to him its most essential aspect, enact its deepest social and religious values. The scene is typical of his handling of the Puritans in The Scarlet Letter in its focus on [Puritan] celebration of their community's own special nature and its bonds of authority. We see this again in the Election Day scene which balances this one at the book's conclusion. In both cases [Hawthorne] is unusually attentive to what he calls 'the forms of authority', the ceremonious behavior through which they act out their values.(13)
Hester Prynne first embodies the community's "shame" and through her penitence, she becomes a symbol of "able[ness]." One might say she outwardly displays an ability to "publicly" defeat her "private urges."

Though Hester plays the role of a Freudian symbol for the society, by allowing them to place their fear of "repressed" truths and desires onto her breast in the form a scarlet "A," for Hester the "A" functions more like a literary symbol. Hawthorne clarifies the difference between these two functions of the scarlet letter early on in the novel by purely visual descriptions. The "oldest dame" who wishes to "strip[...] Madam Hester's rich gown off her dainty shoulders; and as for the red letter, which she hath stitched so curiously, I'll bestow a rag of mine own rheumatic flannel, to make a fitter one,"(14) reinforces the opinions of the community, that is, her somewhat violent words towards Hester reiterate the wish of the community to mold Hester into a plain and pure symbol of penitence. Thus they need to take away her individual "flourishes" to make her no longer an individual being but a symbol or icon existing for a purely public purpose, in a purely public realm. Yet Hester creates for herself a symbol that expresses her desires and her individuality, which is also reflected in her dress for the day she stands for the first time on the pillory:

[...] [T]he young woman--the mother of the child--stood fully revealed before the crowd, [... and] with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.(15)
For Hester the designing of this brand is her final expression of free will, her last truly individualist action, and this symbol expresses all the "fertility" of her spirit and imagination. The scarlet letter "A" symbolizes for Hester what she once was, or could have been, had she not been forced to don this token of shame. Thus, to some degree, Hester's individuality is portrayed as shameful. It is only when she becomes an entirely public being and sheds her individual spirit, that she can be seen as a penitent and public figure of value.

Even though Hester, after being set on public display, dons the society's "somber" dress and even more "somber" manners, she still cannot completely quench her individual spark. Hester's daughter, Pearl, embodies, like the scarlet letter, what where once Hester's more impassioned attributes. Hester dresses Pearl in "lavish" costumes that resemble the "gorgeously" wrought scarlet "A." Roger Chillingworth wonders what forces guide little Pearl:

'There is no law, nor reverence for authority, no regard for human ordinances or opinions, right or wrong, mixed up with that child's composition; [...] 'What, in Heaven's name, is she? Is the imp altogether evil? Hath she affections? Hath she any discernible principle of being?'(16)
This line of questioning mirrors the "gossips'" talk in the opening scene of the novel. The women in "Prison Lane" wonder at Hester's "haughty" dress and manner, much as Robert Chillingworth pointedly seeks an explanation for Pearl's "impish" and undaunted behavior. Even in chapters such as "Hester at her Needle" where the reader sees Hester setting aside her own individuality by staying within the confinement of the society that has punished her, there is still detectable a tint of spiritual alienation due to Hester's powerful sense of individuality:
It was as if a new birth, with stronger assimilations than the first, had converted the forest land, still so uncongenial to every other pilgrim and wanderer, into Hester Prynne's wild and dreary, but life long home.(17)
Though it is suggested that Hester binds herself to this community to serve her due penance: "The chain that bound her here was of iron links, and galling to her inmost soul, but never could be broken."(18) Yet there is a more desirous "serpent" that winds about her soul and binds her to this place, that is, the illicit passion of her love for the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale. In later chapters, such as "A Flood of Sunshine", the "moral wilderness" which Hester roves though receives direct reflection in the character of Pearl, the spawn of this unlawful passion: "The truth seems to be, however, that the mother-forest [(i.e. Hester)], and these wild things which it nourished, all recognized a kindred wildness in the human child."(19) In the chapter just preceding "A Flood of Sunshine", in the same wilderness, Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale and Hester are able to free themselves from the "chains" of the community, but they are not able to escape their inner most passions. Hester can draw Dimmesdale close to her breast and his head can rest directly on the scarlet "A", but their desires may no longer be matched:
With sudden and desperate tenderness, she threw her arms around him, and pressed his head against her bosom; little caring though his check rested on the scarlet letter. He would have released himself, but strove in vain to do so. Hester would not set him free, lest he should look at her sternly in the face.(20)
Dimmesdale may try to free himself from Hester's passions, but she "presse[s]" him near as she can to her heart, and thus to her true desires. These true desires reflect themselves flawlessly in the scarlet "A", just as little Pearl is reflected in the brook. For Hester the scarlet "A" and her "Pearl," purchased at such a high price, the loss of her individual spirit, are symbols that repress nothing. Like literary symbols, this pair expresses Hester's "wild" spirits in a very "concrete" form.

At the close of the novel, after Dimmesdale's death, Hester seems to relinquish any last thread of her spirited nature. She supposedly returns to Salem, she does not follow Pearl to a new home. Though at this point even the strictest of Puritan citizens would agree that Hester more then completed her penitence, her deepest passions, represented by the scarlet "A" that still remains upon her breast after Dimmesdale's death, are what draw her to stay, they are all that remains of a once vital and vibrant young woman:

On the threshold [Hester] paused,--turned partly round,--for, perchance, the idea of entering, all alone, and all so changed, the home of so intense a former life, was more dreary and desolate than even she could bear. But her hesitation was only for an instant, though long enough to display a scarlet letter on her breast.(21)
Thus Hawthorne leaves the reader to ponder the fate of a woman bound to, and vitally entwined with, a powerful symbol: "On a field, sable, the letter A, gules."(22) This powerful final image completes the duality, completing a perfect final image of the double function which the scarlet "A" has played through the course of the novel. The "sable" aspect of the story behind the scarlet letter is represented in the dark masked desires of an "iron" community, a community where law and religion combine to mask truth. By wearing the "A" Hester embodies the Freudian symbol of the "sable" fears of the Puritan society. For Hester herself the "A" is a literary symbol, and a keen presentation of the glow of her natural spirit, a spirit which wanders in an untamed wilderness of longing and loss. Through the angular lines of an emblazoned symbol Hawthorne creates a tragic romance, wherein "[t]he scarlet letter [(i.e. the symbol) does] not [do] its office."(23) Why does Hawthorne take such care to thread together images an unsuccessful symbol? The scarlet "A" actually finds the most success by not succeeding in either curing the Puritan community of its evils, nor does it save Hester from her own passions. Rather the "A" mirrors Hester Prynne's true desires, and casts its "lurid" glow on the Puritan's own darkest fears of the untamed, vital human spirit. Hawthorne's symbol embodies the vision of the artist and the repressed obtusness of the Freudian dream.

1. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter: Ed. Ross C. Murfin. New York, New York: Bedford Books of St. Martins P., (1991): 54.

2. Diehl, Joanne Feit. "Re-reading The Letter: Hawthorne, the Fetish, and the (Family) Romance." The Scarlet Letter: Ed. Ross C. Murfin. New York, New York: Bedford Books of St. Martins P., (1991): 235-251.

3. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter: Ed. Ross C. Murfin. New York, New York: Bedford Books of St. Martins P., (1991): 57.

4. Weiss, Daniel. "The Critic Agonistes". The Critic Agonistes: Psychology, Myth, and the Art of Fiction. Ed. Stephen Arkin and Eric Solomon. Seattle: U of Washington P. (1985): 5-32.

5. ibid. 19.

6. ibid. 20.

7. ibid. 20.

8. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter: Ed. Ross C. Murfin. New York, New York: Bedford Books of St. Martins P., (1991): 55.

9. ibid. 55.

10. Weiss, Daniel. "The Critic Agonistes". The Critic Agonistes: Psychology, Myth, and the Art of Fiction. Ed. Stephen Arkin and Eric Solomon. Seattle: U of Washington P. (1985): 21.

11. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter: Ed. Ross C. Murfin. New York, New York: Bedford Books of St. Martins P., (1991): 74.

12. Weiss, Daniel. "The Critic Agonistes". The Critic Agonistes: Psychology, Myth, and the Art of Fiction. Ed. Stephen Arkin and Eric Solomon. Seattle: U of Washington P. (1985): 21.

13. Brodhead, Richard H. "New and Old Tales: The Scarlet Letter." Hawthorne, Melville, and the Novel. Chicago: U of Chicago P., (1973): 44.

14. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter: Ed. Ross C. Murfin. New York, New York: Bedford Books of St. Martins P., (1991): 58.

15. ibid. 57.

16. ibid. 112.

17. ibid. 75.

18. ibid. 75.

19. ibid. 161.

20. ibid. 154.

21. ibid. 200.

22. ibid. 201.

23. ibid. 134.